My husband loves to play competitive handball – it’s like racquetball without the racket. We have traveled to many obscure destinations so he can participate in a tournament. Several years ago we attended a tournament in Chattanooga, TN, not too far from some of his relatives in Mississippi. We padded the trip with a few extra days and invited my mother-in-law to join us for a visit with her family there. We flew into Nashville and rested up before meeting in the lobby to go “honky tonking” for dinner.
My 80-something year old mother-in-law appeared at the appointed hour, ready to do up the town. We had a southern dinner with deep fried everything while listening to a blues band, then strolled through downtown, snapping a picture with Elvis on the way back to our hotel. It was really special watching her enjoy the time.
The next morning her sister-in-law picked her up to catch up on the years gone by as we headed to the competition. The tournament ended on Sunday and we had arranged to drive from Chattanooga to Iuka, MS to pick her up and visit family my husband hadn’t seen in many years. My one request was that we experience some real Southern worship at a church along the way. We drove a long time, passing church after church, as I looked for one that seemed to be just starting their service. I was getting irritated and frustrated knowing we were nearing our destination and running out of time. I took a moment to regroup and ask God to lead us where he would have us go. Soon after, I noticed a young man entering a church with a full parking lot. We pulled in. California has become so casual that the travel clothes we were wearing were common for our local church, but I knew we were so underdressed for Southern church. My dress was packed away and there was no time to change. We entered the church and encountered a young man in the foyer. I explained we were traveling, passing by, and wondered if my shorts and sandals were too causal or if we were too late to attend the service. He insisted no and invited us to come in.
As the doors opened to the Sanctuary I thanked God for leading us here. The choir was in full swing, clapping, waving fans, and praising God. We were the only white folks among the congregation, yet I felt completely welcome and where God wanted us. Bishop Freeman wore a crisp white, three-piece suit with gold tipped alligator boots. He preached a message that spoke to my heart, urging us to make nothing greater than our God. He encouraged us to give God the praise due his name, challenging those who would head home and scream and cheer for their favorite football team, but sit timidly through worship. Encouraged by his reasoning, the organist left his instrument and began running laps around the church, shouting praises to God until he passed out cold near the front row. A woman in the front row continued singing as she inched closer to the young man collapsed nearby, waving her fan over him in the rhythm of the music. Another parishioner jumped from her pew and kicked up her heels in praise, sending her shoes in opposite directions as her beaded necklace broke and scattered in front of the alter. Bishop Freeman invited those in need of prayer to the altar and three young women were among those who responded. One lingered long after her two companions returned to their seats. The singing continued as we were encouraged to give her all the time she needed.
I loved celebrating Jesus with these believers! My heart was full as we drove away, pondering the freedom of worshipping our God with total abandon. It was a different church culture than we are accustomed to. As we drove along reflecting on the experience, we smiled. My husband shared that when the organist had walked off the stage he assumed there was a problem with the equipment. He was quite surprised when instead he began “running laps”.
We arrived in Mississippi a short time later where my husband’s family was gathered to see us. It had been more than a decade since they had seen each other and this was the first time I would meet them. They knew we had planned to attend church before arriving and intended to find a place along the way. After hugs and introductions someone asked if we were able to find a service. When we described the wonderful church we had found, they gasped. As much as they would like to, they had never attended a “black church”.
I thank God that were ignorant of this social barrier that could have kept us from worshipping with our brothers and sisters in Christ! Too often I’ve let my fear of ridicule or not fitting in limit what God has planned for me. “Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. Isaiah 51:7